Some claim there is no fu­ture for the agency pitch, while others ar­gue that it is a cen­tral part of agency and brand life. So where does the truth lie?

Campaign Middle East - - NEWS - By Suzy Bash­ford

The pitch is dead, long live the pitch!” has been a fre­quent re­frain in ad­land, with prophe­cies of its demise typ­i­cally get­ting louder when the econ­omy is strug­gling and new busi­ness is scarcer. Like now.

Thanks to its cycli­cal na­ture, some vet­er­ans be­lieve that the cur­rent con­tro­versy around pitch­ing will do what it has al­ways done: it will come, it will go and ab­so­lutely nothing will change.

Martin Jones, man­ag­ing part­ner at AAR, who has worked on more than 800 pitches, is one of the scep­tics. “All this talk of the pitch process be­ing dead is hi­lar­i­ous. If the pitch process is run cor­rectly, it’s the best way to do it. Agen­cies love pitch­ing. They love the adren­a­line,” he says.

Fel­low pitch con­sul­tant Stu­art Po­cock, man­ag­ing part­ner at Ob­ser­va­tory In­ter­na­tional, agrees: “The mar­ket just now is un­be­liev­ably quiet. That’s why it’s be­come a de­bat­ing topic again. But it’s be­ing raised falsely. My sus­pi­cion is that fast-for­ward to 2025 and we’ll be do­ing the same.”

Others beg to dif­fer. They ar­gue that the en­tire con­text of mar­ket­ing has changed and, as such, pitch­ing must evolve. The quiet­ness means that bud­gets are un­der more pres­sure than ever and, as a re­sult, good agen­cies in­creas­ingly won’t tol­er­ate poor pitch prac­tice, and if they get a whiff of it, will refuse to par­tic­i­pate.

Ac­cord­ing to re­search com­mis­sioned by Creative­brief, 61 per cent of brands and 93per cent of agen­cies want to see change, with 82 per cent of agen­cies agree­ing that they should be pre­pared to refuse to pitch for an ac­count in or­der to in­sti­gate this change.

Brands that be­have badly be­come the talk of ad­land. Axa got tongues wag­ging for hav­ing too many peo­ple in the room, for in­stance; Volk­swa­gen for its 18-month process; Dreams for its fre­quent change of agency; and Huawei for go­ing through pitch pro­cesses but fail­ing to ac­tu­ally com­mis­sion work. These are just a few of the re­cent of­fend­ers.

“What we’ve been see­ing over the last 18 months is a fas­ci­nat­ing sit­u­a­tion,” Char­lie Car­pen­ter, Creative­brief’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, says. “Lots of clients will go to mar­ket to run a pitch think­ing that, be­cause the econ­omy is a bit tight, agen­cies will be hun­gry for new busi­ness. They think: ‘If I run a pitch now, I’ll have my pick.’ But, ac­tu­ally, the re­verse is hap­pen­ing: we’re en­ter­ing a time now when agen­cies are be­ing forced to be more se­lec­tive with their re­sources.”

This view is backed up by those at some of the top creative and me­dia agen­cies.

“Agen­cies need to be bet­ter at push­ing back,” Jemima Monies, head of new busi­ness at Adam & Eve/DDB, says. “They should say no to pitch­ing dur­ing half-term, for ex­am­ple, or in the first week of Jan­uary. A client who isn’t happy to com­pro­mise on these things may not be a client you want to work with.”

Else­where, Larissa Vince, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Saatchi & Saatchi Lon­don, says: “We don’t pitch over Christ­mas. We ex­plain why and, more of­ten than not, clients will un­der­stand and move the date, but of­ten agen­cies won’t ask.”

Mike Cooper, world­wide chief ex­ec­u­tive of PHD, agrees: “We don’t do ev­ery­thing. Some don’t smell right and it’s fairly ob­vi­ous. You get a feel for a client’s at­ti­tude to agen­cies. If it’s a ‘master-slave’ at­ti­tude, it’s not a good sign.”

Car­pen­ter ar­gues that this sit­u­a­tion has “never ex­isted be­fore” and that we are en­ter­ing “a per­fect storm”, which will ne­ces­si­tate gen­uine change and vi­able al­ter­na­tives to a pitch. The big­gest fun­da­men­tal shift needed, he says, is a short­en­ing of the process at all stages. “No-one has the lux­ury of time any more,” he adds. “Brands need to move quicker than they ever have.”

But tim­ing is not just about speed; it’s also about cut­ting down the time for prepa­ra­tion and re­hearsal, so that mar­keters can glean an au­then­tic in­sight into what it is like to work with an agency in an on-the-fly, ag­ile way, nec­es­sary for busi­ness to­day. “There’s an ar­ti­fi­cial­ity and chore­og­ra­phy that creeps into the pitch process when it’s too long, which means it’s not well de­signed to em­u­late a real-life re­la­tion­ship,” Car­pen­ter says.

Creative­brief is ex­per­i­ment­ing with a new model, which in­volves mak­ing a quick de­ci­sion about an ap­point­ment, then work­ing with that agency for a paid trial pe­riod of a few weeks. Such fast-turn­around pitches are be­com­ing more com­mon.

“We re­cently did a pitch in a day and I re­ally liked it be­cause it al­lowed us to show off the tal­ents and per­son­al­ity of the peo­ple who will ac­tu­ally work on the busi­ness,” Mike Dodds, global pres­i­dent of Prox­im­ity, says. “This seems much more ap­pro­pri­ate than the rather fake three-week pe­riod dur­ing which peo­ple you may never meet de­velop work that will prob­a­bly never run.”

Oys­ter­catch­ers founder Suki Thompson, who is also bang­ing the drum for change, agrees that the process needs to fo­cus on col­lab­o­ra­tion and be­ing nim­ble, cut­ting the flab from around the edges. This has re­sulted in her com­pany’s bold pro­posal to scrap re­quests for in­for­ma­tion and chem­istry meet­ings in some cases.

“If you make agen­cies do too much up-front, they don’t con­cen­trate on the ‘exam ques­tion’, which is how you are go­ing to cre­ate an ef­fec­tive way of work­ing to­gether’,” she says. “That’s where ev­ery­one should be con­cen­trat­ing time and ef­fort, not on 130-page RFIs that, frankly, 2 per cent of the au­di­ence reads.”

Thompson es­ti­mates the tra­di­tional pitch process is now no longer suit­able for eight out of 10 clients, go­ing so far as to say that Sir Martin Sor­rell’s exit from the in­dus­try has “forced the spot­light” on to the fact that “the old-fash­ioned net­work doesn’t en­tirely work any more”.

Nei­ther does a process that is not so­cially re­spon­si­ble or eth­i­cal. This has been the hottest topic of con­ver­sa­tion at re­cent Creative­brief events, at which the fu­ture of the pitch has been de­bated. “With things like men­tal health be­ing mas­sively un­der the mi­cro­scope, there’s talk of the drain on family life that agency staff shoul­der dur­ing long, drawn-out pitches,” Car­pen­ter says.

There’s also been much dis­cus­sion about how the pitch process, in its cur­rent form,

‘You get a feel for a client’s at­ti­tude to agen­cies. If it’s a “master-slave” at­ti­tude, it’s not a good sign’ Mike Cooper, PHD

per­pet­u­ates a lack of di­ver­sity, es­pe­cially at the top, be­cause it favours male par­tic­i­pa­tion over fe­male, and be­cause pitch­ing is as­so­ci­ated with pro­mo­tion. The num­ber of fe­male cre­atives who will not have been put on a pitch over the past year will be 45 per cent higher than the num­ber of male cre­atives who have not, ac­cord­ing to re­search from Creative Equals.

Rein­ven­tion is not just about ef­fi­ciency, di­ver­sity, bud­gets or bu­reau­cracy; it’s also about joy. Some ob­servers claim agen­cies have lost their spark amid the pres­sure piled on them by modern mar­ket­ing. How­ever – as many at­test – at heart, they love pitch­ing; it is at their core. And per­haps the in­dus­try would be left bereft with­out some form of show­man­ship, an el­e­ment that the pitch has al­ways pro­vided.

Tracey Bar­ber, group chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer of Havas UK, cer­tainly be­lieves this to be the case: “The pitch isn’t dead. It’s still alive and kick­ing but the method­ol­ogy is chang­ing. There is still a huge amount of pas­sion that goes into pitch­ing. It’s a mar­vel­lous op­por­tu­nity to demon­strate ex­per­tise. The joy of putting on a per­for­mance is still there. There would be some­thing miss­ing with­out it.”

The onus is on brands to reignite this spark if they want to get the best out of the se­lec­tion process. Some are step­ping up to the plate. Cooper, for ex­am­ple, de­scribes the HSBC pitch process as “an ab­so­lute dream” (and claims he would have said this even if his agency had not won the busi­ness).

Cooper ex­plains that the process worked so well be­cause the client worked hard to put en­joy­ment back into a process that has be­come, in many cases, a chore. Leanne Cutts, group head of mar­ket­ing at HSBC, held the briefing for the pitch (which she co­de­named “Project Sun­shine”) at the Mu­seum of Brands in Not­ting Hill, where she talked about her last visit to an art gallery and how it made her feel.

“She said there was far too much neg­a­tiv­ity around at the mo­ment and she wanted this to be an op­ti­mistic, pos­i­tive, en­joy­able process,” Cooper says. “The ap­proach was dif­fer­ent, en­er­getic, op­ti­mistic and re­spect­ful.”

In­deed, good pitch prac­tice fre­quently hinges on good lead­er­ship from the chief mar­keter. This might be the strength to say no to hav­ing some peo­ple in the room, or be­ing brave enough to ditch the tra­di­tional for­mat in favour of some­thing more in­for­mal that may bet­ter suit a brand’s needs.

“Hav­ing 30 ap­par­ent de­ci­sion-mak­ers in a room shows a lack of lead­er­ship,” Marc Nohr, chief ex­ec­u­tive at Fold7, says.

“The se­nior client needs to es­tab­lish the agenda, drive it and know what he or she is look­ing for in a com­plex mar­ket. ‘Buy­ing’ an agency is a skill that needs to be de­vel­oped, as is know­ing how to get the best out of them once you’ve bought them and it all comes down to good lead­er­ship.”

If brand mar­keters can step up to meet this challenge, then re­ports of the death of the pitch may have been greatly ex­ag­ger­ated.

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